Being mindful can help ease stress

Michael Craig Miller, M.D.

Senior Editor, Mental Health Publishing, Harvard Health Publishing

The hectic pace of daily life and the stresses that accompany it may make you want to tune out. A healthier approach may be to tune in.

I know that sounds counterintuitive. But paying more attention to what is going on around you, not less, is the first step toward cultivating mindfulness, an excellent technique to help you cope with a range of mental and physical problems, including stress.

The practice of mindfulness, which has its roots in Buddhism, teaches people to be present in each moment. The idea is to focus attention on what is happening now and accepting it without judgment.

Although it sounds simple, and even simplistic, mindfulness is a powerful therapeutic tool. It has been shown to ease stress, prevent major depression from reappearing, alleviate anxiety, and even reduce physical symptoms such as pain or hot flashes. As my colleague Carolyn Schatz wrote on this blog a few months back, one way mindfulness works its magic is by improving connections in the brain.

Interested in becoming more mindful? As I write in the Harvard Mental Health Letter, you can do this on your own by practicing a few simple techniques, like sitting quietly, focusing on your breathing, becoming aware of your surroundings, and watching what comes and goes in your mind. You can get more specific directions in the full article in the October 2011 Harvard Mental Health Letter.

Mindfulness doesn’t have to be more complicated than paying attention to what is going on around you. This seemingly simple practice is often hard to sustain in a busy world. But if you make the effort to become more mindful, you may find the results to be well worth it.

The Harvard Mental Health Letter, written for both mental health professionals and all interested readers, presents the latest thinking about how to promote a sense of well-being, and to understand, prevent and treat mental distress.


  1. P Bloch

    A major way to help any person with stress is to engage with them as a full human being. Many people (of course, not all) who suffer with stress lack opportunities in their lives to be met with as the person that they really are, without judgement or demand. That is, a fully loving relationship. Such encounters, even if relatively brief, have the power to transform well-being, and this is the basis of the “healing relationship” in any psychotherapeutic model.

  2. Frank Stein, PhD, OTR

    Another important way to deal effectively with stress is walking meditation. I find that taking a 30 minute walk especially in a natural setting alone or with a spouse or friend can ease tension, anxiety and stress. The combination of an aerobic exercise and meditation is a healthful combination. A couple of weeks ago I had a visual migraine headache that came upon me suddenly as I was driving. After I parked the car,I went for the meditation walk. Lo and behold the visual headache disappeared.

  3. John

    Here’s a suggestion: The next time you feel overwhelmed by your thoughts and/or sensory perceptions, instead of trying to assimilate or make sense of the whole barrage of information, be contented with being aware of their presence.

    In other words, be aware that they are there in your field of awareness without trying to label them, understand them, change them, judge them or deny them. Just accept their presence and do nothing else.

    Being mindful doesn’t mean getting entangled in whatever you’re mindful of. Conversely, it’s accepting (not equate to approving) the things you’re mindful of without internal or external fighting or struggling.

    If you’re keen to develop greater mindfulness, in addition to the few great suggestions given by Dr. Miller, you may also want to practice mindfulness meditation on a daily basis. It’s a simple meditation that probably takes a lifetime to perfect. But don’t let that deter you. Even without being perfect, you’ll still gain much from the practice as studies have found.

    There are many useful instructions on mindfulness meditation on the Internet. Find one that appeals to you most and try it. If you feel you need more help in learning how to meditate, look around and see if there’s a meditation center or experienced teacher near where you stay. Learning mindfulness meditation in a group setting could be reassuring and motivating than learning by yourself as it gives you chances to interact with other people and a teacher.

    I wish you good luck.

    [URLs removed by moderator]

  4. Anonymous

    I think it depends on the situation. One thing that works for me is not to worry about things that I cant solve or change. For instance, I cant be stressed because someone else does not care about the environment. What I would care is what difference can I make to the environment to be a better place. So whether being mindful or not, it realy depends on the circumstances; and thats not being ignorant!!

  5. Jeanne

    I agree, but I also have a sort of “step 2″…or maybe it’s simply another way to relieve stress. Here’s what works for me: choosing some things in life to simply “disengage” from. The reason I say this is that I am a very responsible person – sometimes too much, in the way that some of what goes on in life around me, stresses me out. I feel like I have to “fix it” or “solve it” – but I am only one person, I already have a lot on “my plate” and therefor when I can’t “fix”, “solve” or help in some way – it stresses me out. My example is recently I had chosen to help a someone out – they had hit a life “snag” (just before Christmas last year) and were sort of suffering the consequences. I helped – then I helped again, then again and again – then I learned / realized that there was absolutely no plan, no drive and no initiative by that person to make their make their better, more productive or healthier. I was stuck – it bothered me, I WANTED to help make things better, it stressed me out that someone didn’t care. Anyway I had to disengage – I cannot solve others family problems, I cannot give someone ambition or the will to make thier situation better and I kind of look at it this way: I won’t help someone who won’t help themselves. Yes we really should be mindfull and we also should pick and choose what/who to engage and what/who to not – that saves a lot of stress.

  6. Anonymous

    mindfulness,I do that all the time,but this article inspires me something else,i will write something about this soon,thanks.

  7. Kathy Silverstein

    I don’t know, people always tell me that mindfulness is the key to being more relaxed and happier, but I question its usefulness for me. I have such an overactive mind. I am noticing everything CONSTANTLY. I have Asperger’s Syndrome, so that means I have a lot of sensory issues. I notice the way my clothes feel on my skin (usually bad), a radio playing in another room, 15 individual conversations, smells that no one else can notice, leaves blowing in the air, funny clouds in the sky – I notice everything. I am mindful of everything.And I am usually VERY overwhelmed, even just walking down the street. [URL removed by moderator]

    Can that kind of mindfulness be good?

    I usually try to block it out with music on my Walkman or stay busy so to try to block individual sensations out. I feel that *trying* to focus on them would just make me more overwhelmed. Thoughts?

  8. Armando Ribeiro das Neves Neto

    Mindfulness is so simple and natural that clashes with the pace of our current life so hectic, messy and stressful. Learning mindfulness is to relearn, again as a beginner’s mind are the inquisitive minds of our young children. In addition to the formal practices, remember that you can take the essence of mindfulness is where in fact there is no other place beyond the here and now this! Armando Ribeiro das Neves Neto. Sao Paulo – Brazil.

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